Miami-Dade Schools, union push costly private loan program for lowest paid workers

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org 

Terry Haynes, senior vice president of Local 1184 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

A union representing the lowest-paid Miami-Dade Public Schools employees has endorsed a proposed private loan program for its members that would charge 24 percent interest with the school district collecting loan repayments by deducting them from employee paychecks.

The proposal, which did not go before the Miami-Dade School Board for public discussion and approval or review, has drawn criticism from an outspoken union official who will seek to become president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 1184, in a May election.

“The interest rate is high” for the union employees and “puts them in harm’s way,” said controversial Local 1184 Senior Vice President Terry Haynes. Haynes was suspended by the loca’s executive board last month but reinstated March 28 by AFSCME’s national headquarters in Washington, D.C. following an investigation.

Critical of the union and the school district for backing a contract change that allows for a private company to set up the loan program, Haynes said, “If they want to do something, why not something more manageable” than 24 percent interest? “If we have people going out for those loans,” he said, “it means they are not being paid enough.”

The loan program proposal arises from a modification to the labor contract that was agreed to by the school district and the union Jan. 31. The change allows for the union to have another payroll deduction slot for “other economic services” to be used by “entities or businesses” as designated, with the school district being held harmless under the plan.

Vicki Hall, Local 1184 president who signed the agreement on behalf of the union, Hall did not respond to requests for comment, including a question about what benefits the union might receive for backing the BMG loan program. Union draft documents about the program, however, state that BMG would provide financial literacy training to union workers; support union membership drives and make an unspecified contribution to the union.

But Tom McCormick, chief growth officer for BMG Money Inc., said in an email, “We do not plan on offering any incentives to AFSCME based on any milestones.”

Two school district officials — Vivian Santiesteban-Pardo, assistant superintendent in charge of Labor Relations and Compensation, and Jose Dotres, Chief Human Resources Officer, who signed the “Memorandum of Understanding” on behalf of the district – also failed to return calls for comment.

A new payroll slot

But in a district email response, Santiesteban-Pardo said that in September the union had requested the payroll department to “add a payroll slot for Loans at Work, a program offered through BMG Money… The Union has not presented the District with the agreement in order to begin the program. The terms and conditions of the program are subject to the agreement between BMG and AFSCME. At this time, no other union in M-DCPS has requested a payroll slot for BMG Money.”

A draft letter from AFSCME Local 1184 backing the BMG loan program states: “Sometimes when savings aren’t available and neither banks nor credit unions can help, these expenses can create true financial hardships in our lives…

“Though the interest rate is somewhat higher than what our more fortunate members might pay, 23.99%, it is definitely reasonable in comparison to payday loans that charge anywhere from 200%-400% APR… The availability of the [BMG] LoansAtWork program is in the best interest of our members – another tool in times of need.”

Haynes, however, said there is something wrong when only the lowest-paid employees are being offered the loan program at what he considers a high rate. The union should not be a party to this, he said, adding he told Hall it was not good for union employees.

The school district will, in effect, become a “collection agency” because loan repayments will be made through the district’s payroll deduction system, said Haynes.

BMG’s McCormick declined to comment on any talks with the district and Local 1184, but did discuss his company’s program.

“BMG Money’s LoansAtWork program is a fixed-rate, fixed-payment employee emergency loan program,” McCormick stated. “When facing an expected expense, too many good people with good jobs are left with few options except predatory payday lenders… Payday lenders in Florida offer short-term loans with absurdly high interest rates of 265% and repayment terms that make the loans exceedingly burdensome on borrowers.”

But a Tallahassee-based consumer group that strongly opposes predatory payday lending says BMG’s 23.99 percent interest, while considerably lower, is no bargain, either.

“I would say it is a pretty high interest rate,” said Alice Vickers, director of the Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection. “I certainly would call it not very risky [for BMG] with an interest rate that high and guaranteed repayment through paycheck deduction…I advocate they lower the rate.”

BMG Money

BMG Money Inc., incorporated in September 2009 in Delaware, began operations in Florida in 2010 and has an office on Brickell Avenue. The company’s majority shareholder is an affiliate of Banco BMG S.A. of Sao Paulo, Brazil, according to bid documents it presented to Broward County government, where the company is under consideration for establishment of a loan program for county employees.

Banco BMG S.A., according to Bloomberg Private Business Information, “provides commercial and credit, financing, and investment products and services primarily in Brazil.” It also provides “salary account deductible loans … personal direct debit loan accounts for civil servants, retirees … and pensioners,” according to Bloomberg.

In its short time in Florida, BMG has been busy. In its documents to Broward County government, BMG stated it has 42 governmental or public entity clients, all in Florida, and has issued “over $107 million of loans to employees who otherwise would have fallen victim to predatory payday loans.”

Among the 42 clients are Broward County Public Schools and the cities of Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach. The loan programs with these other government agencies were offered to all employees working for those agencies after being reviewed and or authorized by the governing bodies.

BMG’s bid documents to Broward County give a glimpse of how the loan program operates: Loans do not compound, do not require credit reports, do not require fees, will be “unsecured” (not require the backing of homes, cars or savings as collateral), will be in amounts from $500 to $5,000, will be repaid through payroll deductions over six to 24 months, and can be paid back early without penalty. BMG also provides financial literacy training for borrowers.

The controversy involving the loan program is another sharp difference between Haynes and Hall. Led by Hall, Local 1184’s executive board on March 7 suspended Haynes from his duties as Senior Vice President, but on March 28 he was reinstated by AFSCME’s headquarters after an investigation.

Haynes said he was told by Hall that he was suspended for talking to a reporter for the FloridaBulldog. In an article appearing one day before his March 7 suspension, Haynes questioned why Hall received a huge annual pay hike from the school district two months before the School Board began approval of two contracts totaling $1.8 million, over a five-year period, to outsource lawn service normally done by union employees. Haynes linked the pay boost to the two contracts that the union failed to challenge at the time of School Board approvals.

Florida’s coming war on collective bargaining for state employees

By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org 

State Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami

State Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami

When Miami state Rep. Carlos Trujillo was interviewed on Spanish language radio station Actualidad 1020 he boldly proclaimed that Republicans will ask voters in 2018 to eliminate collective bargaining for state employees from the Florida Constitution.

“It is going to be a nuclear war between the government, the unions, the Republicans and the Democrats,” Trujillo said on the air Sept. 30. “That war is coming.”

Trujillo said a proposed amendment to do away with collective bargaining could be among the proposed constitutional changes that the Constitutional Revision Commission, a 28-member group selected by state elected and judicial officials that convenes every 10 years, will consider in 2017. Possible changes would then be placed on the 2018 ballot.

His comments are a strong indication that the revision commission will be stacked with ultraconservative appointees who are going to try to push through amendments that are not in the best interests of state residents, say union leaders and a Democratic legislator who spoke to FloridaBulldog.org.

“I don’t think it’s bluster,” said state Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami). “I think [Trujillo] is totally serious given how extreme the House Republican leadership has been on issues affecting working families.”

“We are not taking [Trujillo’s] comments lightly at all,” added Andy Madtes, executive director of AFSCME Florida, which represents 15,000 government employees. “We are ready to activate thousands of union members to protect their rights. He made the declaration about going to war.”

In a Dec. 21 interview, Trujillo downplayed his on-the-air comments. “I definitely think it is being blown out of proportion,” Trujillo said. “I don’t sit on the Constitutional Revision Commission and I don’t select the people who sit on it.”

CONSTITUTIONAL REVISION COMMISSION

However, Gov. Rick Scott, incoming Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli — all Republicans — get to appoint 24 of the 28 commission members. Scott, Negron and Crisafulli can select anyone to serve on the commission, including legislators. Scott also gets to pick the chairman from the 15 people he puts on the commission.

Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi is automatically appointed to the constitutional board. The three remaining members are to be selected by the chief justice of the Supreme Court of Florida with the advice of the other justices. After holding hearings to receive public input, the commission has six months before the 2018 general election to place its proposed amendments on the ballot.

The last time a Constitutional Revision Commission convened, most of its members were appointed by Gov. Lawton Chiles, a Democrat, and Senate president Toni Jennings and House speaker Dan Webster, both Republicans. Democrat Bob Butterworth was attorney general, so both parties were evenly represented on the commission.

In his radio appearance in September, Trujillo was adamant about ending state workers’ ability to collectively bargain salaries. During the interview, show host Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera suggested that private sector employees should unionize in order to get higher minimum wages considering government unions negotiate starting salaries for its members.

Trujillo countered that it would be more effective to eliminate the government unions’ power to negotiate collective bargaining agreements. “We are going to do it,” Trujillo said. “We have the Constitutional Revision Commission that is coming up. It is the opportunity to take things out of the Constitution.”

Yet, Trujillo told FloridaBulldog.org last week that the revision commission has more important issues to tackle, such as term limits for legislators and universal school vouchers. “Those are some things the commission should look at,” he said. “The state is facing much bigger problems than collective bargaining.”

Union leaders remain unconvinced. Trujillo’s comments have “turned into a battle cry for people who want to fight for all Floridians to achieve the American Dream,” said Monica Russo, executive vice president of SEIU Local 1199, which represents more than 22,000 public and private sector healthcare workers. “We are taking his threats very seriously.”

New union deal at Miami-Dade Schools to begin push toward $15 hourly minimum wage

By William Gjebre, FloridaBulldog.org minimumwage15

A tentative agreement between Miami-Dade Public Schools and the union representing its general employees raises the minimum pay for some of district’s lowest paid workers to $10 an hour, marking what a top union official says is the start of a drive to obtain a minimum hourly wage of $15.

The deal also provides for an immediate average pay hike of about four percent to the district’s food service employees, custodians, bus drivers and other workers.

Negotiators for the Miami-Dade school system and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Local 1184 reached the agreement Nov. 13. It goes to the School Board for approval today.

“We will be pressing for $15 an hour” in future negotiations, said Local president Vicki Hall.

“I think it is a very good deal for the union considering they are the lowest paid,” said James Haj, Assistant Superintendent in charge of the school district’s Labor Relations Department. He added that the district will look at the $15 an hour wage minimum, but only as an idea to be phased in over time.

“It does not happen overnight…We will keep moving on it,” Haj said.

Government agencies in various states around the country have joined the $15-an-hour minimum wage movement.

Last week, outside County Hall in downtown Miami, several hundred workers joined a $15 wage minimum rally headed by the Service Employees International Union, part of a nationwide demonstration in more than 200 cities that day.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo this month unilaterally established a $15 hourly minimum wage for all state workers in New York City by the end of 2018, and the end of 2021 for state workers outside the city. Other cities that have approved a $15 an hour minimum, to be reached over the next two to five years, include Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The Miami-Dade School Board will be asked to ratify the agreement subject to union members endorsing the pact at a Nov. 23 vote.

BOARD MEMBERS LOBBIED

Sources said the agreement came after union officials lobbied several school board members for a pay boost higher than the 2.4 percent that district officials had been offering. Union officials said the board members they lobbied were chairwoman Perla Hantman, Marta Perez Wurtz, Lawrence Feldman and Wilbert Holloway.

The pay boost for the union’s 7,300 workers is slightly more than the percentage boost accepted earlier this year by unions representing teachers, professional/technical workers and skilled craft employees. The AFSCME union gained much of the increase with a step advance on salary schedules — providing a nearly 4% average hike — rather than a flat rate hike.

According to district figures, the AFSMCE new contract’s total would cost increase salary costs by $4.5 million, though that number is proportionally less than its labor agreements with other unions. For example, the deal with the United Teachers of Dade, representing 31,000 teachers and other support personnel, is $50.1 million more.

If approved, the AFSCME accord would cover terms and conditions for three years, with the wage increase set for the first year, retroactive to July 1. Union officials said additional improvements to health insurance benefits would actually provide a wage improvement of 5 percent in the first year of the new contract.

About 714 employees represented by the union, including some food service and bus aides, will have their hourly salary hiked from about $9 to the new $10 minimum, Hall said.

Hall said the agreement also provides for joint union-management committees to study increasing the minimum hourly work guarantees for bus drivers to seven hours from the current six hours and evaluating staffing of food service workers and custodians to possibility add workers and reduce part time employees in these categories.

Latino workers dying at higher rates in job accidents, report shows

By Stuart Silverstein, FairWarning celltower1

As Latino workers take on more and more of the nation’s toughest and dirtiest jobs, they increasingly are paying for it with their lives.

Preliminary federal figures released last week showed that of the 4,405 U.S. workers killed on the job in 2013, 797 were Latinos. That equates to 3.8 of every 100,000 full-time Latino employees in the U.S. dying in workplace accidents during the year. (more…)

Fear stifles complaints of wage abuse

By Myron Levin, Stuart Silverstein and Lilly Fowler, FairWarning 

Fast-food workers in Seattle accused employers of wage theft last year.

Fast-food workers in Seattle accused employers of wage theft last year.

Karim Ameri allegedly decided to play hardball after learning that his Los Angeles recycling business was under investigation for failing to pay the minimum wage or overtime to workers putting in 60-hour weeks.

Court records say Ameri pressured employees of Recycling Innovations, a string of bottle-and-can redemption centers, to lie to federal officials about his company’s pay practices. He allegedly threatened to fire workers or report them to immigration authorities if they cooperated with U.S. Labor Department investigators. (more…)

Miami Marlins to pay clubhouse workers back wages to settle U.S. labor investigation

By Myron Levin and Stuart Silverstein, FairWarning 

First Pitch at Marlins Park, April 4, 2012 Photo: Roberto Coquis, Creative Commons

First Pitch at Marlins Park, April 4, 2012 Photo: Roberto Coquis, Creative Commons

The Miami Marlins and the San Francisco Giants have agreed to settle Labor Department investigations into possible violations of U.S. wage standards by agreeing to give back wages to underpaid workers.

Officials with the department’s Wage and Hour Division confirmed that the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland A’s have also come under scrutiny in the continuing investigation into the pay practices of Major League Baseball. (more…)

Pay violations rampant in low-wage industries despite enforcement efforts

By Myron Levin, Stuart Silverstein and Lilly Fowler, FairWarning 

Warehouse workers protest in Illinois  Photo: (Peoplesworld/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Warehouse workers protest in Illinois Photo: (Peoplesworld/Flickr/Creative Commons)

For workers stuck on the bottom rung, living on poverty wages is hard enough. But many also are victims of wage theft, a catch-all term for payroll abuses that cheat workers of income they are supposedly guaranteed by law.

Over the last few years employers ranging from baseball’s San Francisco Giants to Subway franchises to Farmers Insurance have been cited for wage violations. More often, though, wage abuses are not reported by victims or punished by authorities despite being routine in some low-wage industries.

“If you steal from your employer, you’re going to be hauled out of the workplace in handcuffs,” said Kim Bobo, a Chicago workers rights advocate and author. “But if your employer steals from you, you’ll be lucky to get your money back.” (more…)

A modern day ‘Harvest of Shame’: Today’s blue collar temp laborers face abuses in Florida, elsewhere

This story was done in collaboration with VICE News.

By Michael Grabell, ProPublica

A photo from the CBS documentary 'Harvest of Shame, left, and Chicago temp workers on a bus in the early morning hours of Jan. 18, 2013 Photo: CBS News, Sally Ryan for ProPublica

A photo from the CBS documentary ‘Harvest of Shame, left, and Chicago temp workers on a bus in the early morning hours of Jan. 18, 2013 Photo: CBS News, Sally Ryan for ProPublica

CRANBURY, N.J. – Half a century ago, the legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow came to this pancake-flat town in central New Jersey to document the plight of migrant farmworkers for a television special called “Harvest of Shame.”

Today, many of Cranbury’s potato fields have been built up with giant warehouses that form a distribution hub off Exit 8A of the Jersey Turnpike. But amid this 21st century system of commerce, an old way of labor persists. (more…)

The impact and echoes of the Wal-Mart discrimination case

By Nina Martin, ProPublica

Betty Dukes (C), one of the six named plaintiffs, speaks to the media outside the U.S. Supreme Court on March 29, 2011. (Xinhua/Zhang Jun)

Betty Dukes (C), one of the six named plaintiffs, speaks to the media outside the U.S. Supreme Court on March 29, 2011. (Xinhua/Zhang Jun)

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its 5-4 decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes in June 2011, no one needed a Richter scale to know it was a Big One. In throwing out a mammoth lawsuit by women employees who claimed that they’d been systematically underpaid and underpromoted by the world’s biggest corporation, the ruling upended decades of employment discrimination law and raised serious barriers to future large-scale discrimination cases of every kind. (more…)

Farmworker advocates from Florida, elsewhere press EPA to update pesticide rules

By Ronnie Greene, Center for Public Integrity pesticides

Saying they are plagued by pesticides but protected by only a thin layer of government regulation, farmworkers and their advocates are pressing the Environmental Protection Agency to update rules that are two decades old, and, critics say, dangerously dated.

Farmworker advocates from Florida to California were in Washington Monday and Tuesday to press the EPA and members of Congress to tighten rules meant to protect agricultural laborers from pesticides in the fields. (more…)

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